Creating Drought-Tolerant Plants By Hacking Their Natural Responses
In a new study, published in Nature, botanists pioneered a new strategy for reprogramming plants to do better during droughts. It began with the plants’ natural technique for dealing with drought: they produce a hormone called abscisic acid (ABA) when they don’t have enough water. ABA closes a plant’s stomata (cells that let carbon dioxide in and out), preventing water loss. In 2009, Sean Cutler and his team at the University of California, Riverside, identified the proteins in charge of those responses, as Nature News explains.
But, as Cutler told the Los Angeles Times, simply spraying plants with ABA to prevent water loss is too expensive, and the compound is so fragile that it’s “not practical for use for agriculture.” So he and his team hit on another solution—genetically modifying plants to respond to a fungicide called mandipropamid. By tweaking the plant’s protein receptors, Cutler’s team was able to effectively reprogram the plant to react to mandipropamid, a human-controlled stimulus, in the same way it would to its own naturally produced ABA. They had created, in short, a sort of on/off switch for a plant’s drought tolerance.